Monday, April 24, 2006

Normalcy, Any Day Now...

A friend of mine approached me with a question the other day, and my response was so quick that it startled us both.

My friend, K, has a boyfriend living several states away. Her boyfriend has a 7-year-old child. Her question: "How was it having parents in two states when you were a kid?"

Without a moment's hesitation, my response: "Don't do it."

Over drinks we discussed the reality of the situation. K wants her boyfriend to move down to Florida with her, and she feels like she's ready to be a step-mom.

The way she sees it, her boyfriend has two options: 1) Petition for full-custody of the child, or 2) Have the child come down and spend all major holidays and summer break with his father.

The way I see it, she's got only one option.

No court in the country is going to award sole custody to a father if the mother is even remotely stable. The boyfriend's ex is already remarried, which puts a father-figure in the equation as well. K's boyfriend doesn't stand a chance.

Which leaves them with option 2. Less satisfactory, for sure, but truly the only alternative.

Having lived through option 2 myself, I could descriptively depict the hell that awaits them all.

#1: It's never enough time.

Neither parent will ever be satisfied splitting their time with the child, and the child will surely see that. Because the dissatisfaction will be so obvious, the child will spend every moment wondering if he's hurting the feelings of one or both of his parents. He will spend the rest of his life trying to make up for lost time, not because he feels pressured to do so, but because he's just as upset as they are that his childhood was split in two, and he'll always feel like he's missed out on things.

#2: He'll never have normal friendships.

Because he will spend all of his vacation time and summers 2,000 miles away from his school friends, he'll never know the normalcy of what kids do during their time away from school. Every September will feel like starting at a new school all over again, because the other kids will have summer experiences that he'll miss entirely.

#3: Someday, he'll have to make a horrendously difficult decision.

There will come a day when the child has a girlfriend, or a job opportunity, or a chance to take a trip of a lifetime, and he won't know what to do. The experience will obviously cut into his time with one of his parents (most likely, his father's time), and if he chooses to take the experience, it will never be complete, because he'll always feel guilty for letting a parent down.

#4: He will always, ALWAYS miss somebody.

Trust me, it's no way to live, and it doesn't get any easier with age.

Having said all of this to my horrified friend, I added something that gave her some hope. Whether her boyfriend moves down to Florida with her, or whether he stays put for now, there will come a day when his parents can't live their lives according to the others' schedule. Someday, a decision will have to be made, and, even though it was never his fault, and it wasn't his parents' fault, all of their lives will be torn.

Being a step-parent who has stepped into a situation like this means life, for you, will never be normal again. You'll always be forced to play be someone else's rules, and even though it wasn't your choice to have a child, or to get a divorce, you will have to live with all of the consequences.

It takes sacrifice, bravery, and, most of all, understanding. Being a step-parent means being the bigger person -- ALL of the time. It's accepting that you will ALWAYS be #2 in your spouse's life, and you'll have to be gracious about it. It's never getting to call the shots in your own life without thinking of the lives of several others.

But most of all, being a step-parent means you will do all of these things without the gratitude of your step-child, because he won't think about you and the thankless sacrifices you made for him. He won't see that you've put your life on-hold, because you loved his parent so much that you would do anything for him, including put your entire young life on the shelf.

He'll never say "thank you" for all that you've done for him, and his family, because he won't understand it. He won't understand it, because he'll be too consumed with his own pain to recognize yours.

It won't sink in until he is much older. And by then, if you've done everything right, he'll realize that "thank you" can't even begin to cover his gratitude, and he'll feel horrible that it took him so long.

And one day, down the road, he'll hope that, for his step-parents, the wait was worthwhile.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Heeding Crosby, Stills and Nash (but not Young)...

Jeremy and I had a taste of parenthood last weekend, and we learned one very important lesson:

We're not ready.

My 8-year-old brother and 7-year-old sister stayed with us for five days while my mom and step-dad went on a cruise. While they were on their absolute best behavior, it was still difficult at times.

It wasn't because they were too much to handle. It's the responsibility of caring for two young people 24/7 that proved to be a burden.

Normally, N & J are quite a handful, but this past weekend, they were sweet, attentive and very well-behaved -- for children.

Over the course of five days, we took them swimming and tubing, played video and board games, went strawberry picking, watched countless episodes of The Simpsons, made multiple meals, played at the dog park and watched a show at a planetarium.

It was exhausting!

The conflict came when Jeremy and I had plans to go to a concert Friday night. We actually had to hire a babysitter for the babysitters!

In short, we couldn't even go a few days without needing some alone time.

Many of my friends have already dipped their toes in the lake of parenthood, and I applaud them all. It's hard work caring for someone else all the time. It's selfless; it's foregoing all of your own plans; it's forgetting all the things you want to do with your time.

It's not us.

Not yet, anyway.

At 26, I suppose I could be a bit more mature. I could wake up earlier than noon on weekends. I could make meals at appropriate times and limit my television intake. I could halt my many weekend trips and party plans.

But I don't have to. Not yet, anyway.

Jeremy and I both work hard. We're enjoying our time together, and we're selfish about it. It's not something we're ashamed of, and it's not something we should have to compromise.

I definitely want to have a child someday. And as much as I would like to be a young mother, spending as much time with my kid as possible, it's more important for me to just be me right now.

I learned something else this weekend, too. I learned that when the time comes for Jeremy and I to be parents, we'll be ready.

I discovered that little lesson during our dinnertime conversations with the kids, and the walks we took and games we played. In essence, in the quality time we spent bonding with the kids.

One day, God willing, we'll be parents. And when we're are, I know we'll be great. We'll love our kid(s); treat them well; raise them right. We'll be the adults that we need to be, so that we can mold him/her into the adult he/she needs to be.

When the time comes.

Just not right now.